Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Chinese who helped win WW1

Daryl Klein’s book With the Chinks is an example of why we should not censor or bowdlerise the past. Let it speak for itself, and it may tell you more than it meant to

Towards the end of 1917, a junior officer named Daryl Klein arrived in Qingdao in China’s Shandong Province. He had come to take up a posting as a Second Lieutenant in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), which between 1916 and 1918 recruited nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers to do war work, including the digging of trenches on the Western Front. In so doing it freed up huge numbers of Allied troops to take a more direct part in the fighting. The French also recruited Chinese labour on a large scale.

Chinese New Year, Noyelles, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
I had known about this episode, and the book that Klein would later write, for a long time; although little-known in Britain, the CLC’s story has not been a secret. I first read of it back in the 1970s, when the Sunday Times Magazine ran a series called The Unofficial History of the 20th Century. This looked at bits of history that the editors felt had been brushed under the carpet; they included (for example) the massacre of Poles by the USSR in the forest of Katyn, which was indeed largely unknown in the West then. A smaller item mentioned the CLC, and referred in passing to a book by one of its officers, Daryl Klein, “with the nonchalant title With the Chinks.” The title stuck in my mind but it was only recently that I was able to confirm that the book existed; it was rediscovered and republished by Naval & Military Press in 2009 and is now available as a download as well as a paperback.

Klein’s book is based on his diary from December 1917 to May 1918, and covers the training of the labourers at their camp in Shantung (as it was then called), their transport across the Pacific to British Columbia and their stay there, and their onward passage towards France as far as New York. It ends there, and does not cover the labourers’ service on the Western Front. Nonetheless it is fascinating, the more so because it was published in 1919 and is thus a very contemporary account. It is also shocking, confronting the reader with a stunning level of casual prejudice.

The CLC’s story has slowly been uncovered and there are now several books about it. For the casual reader, it is set out in a short but very well-written and well-researched book, Mark O’Neill’s The Chinese Labour Corps (2014), one of a series called China Penguin Specials. O’Neill has a family connection; his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in China and accompanied the CLC to France.  

O’Neill explains that the roots of the CLC lay in China’s weak international position and its wish to use the war as a way to improve it. In 1914 China, although an independent state, was firmly under the thumb of the Western colonial powers and Japan. It was saddled with a huge indemnity for its supposed crimes during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, when nationalist Chinese rose against the imperial powers and their “concessions” in China. The latter were extraterritorial enclaves where the foreign powers had special privileges; the most famous was Shanghai, but in 1914 there were actually 27 concessions, according to O’Neill. (If you broaden the definition to include all foreign enclaves, there were more.)

Tank maintenance, Teneur, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
In particular, the Chinese would have liked to regain control of Shandong, where the German concessions had been seized by the Japanese in November 1914. Japan was an ally of Britain and France, and China also hoped that taking a pro-Allied line would earn it their help in dealing with its neighbour. Thus in 1915 the Chinese offered to send a total of 300,000 workers to Britain and France. In the event, Britain would recruit just over 94,000 and the French a further 40,000; of this 135,000-odd men, about 10,000 would later be “lent” to the US when it entered the war. About 80,000 of the CLC were from Shandong, and were from a predominantly agricultural background; it was felt they would deal better with the hard work, and the North European winters, than the Cantonese from further south.

The CLC was not to bear arms or be exposed to combat. Inevitably, however, some did come to harm; O’Neill says that about 3,000 died from bombing and shelling, accidents while clearing munitions (which was clearly dangerous work), and illnesses such as tuberculosis and ’flu (a number would perish in the Spanish Influenza epidemic at the end of the war). Modern Chinese researchers have claimed that the losses were higher. Moreover China would reap few diplomatic rewards in return for their sacrifice.

To read O’Neill’s account in conjunction with Klein’s is to be hit hard by the changes in the way we think about the world.  For a start, one is taken aback by the title With the Chinks. In fact, “Chink” was then American slang, not British. Klein barely uses it in the book. Instead he calls the men “coolies”, a word that has mostly vanished now but was still used when I was a child 50 years ago for a Chinese or Indian worker. But it would now be mostly regarded as offensive, and “chink” would now be taken as a racial slur. These are not words I would use out of context today.

Although coolie was sometimes used simply for Chinese manual workers, strictly speaking it meant an indentured labourer – that is, one who works to pay off a debt, and is effectively unfree. The history of empire includes the most awful abuses of such men, mostly Chinese and Indian, who were transported across the world, worked in many cases to death and, if they survived, left to rot rather than brought home. The worst abuses had been brought to an end in the late 19th century, but in 1918 they were well within living memory. One wonders to what extent Klein knew of them.

The CLC men were not indentured as such, but they were under contract and could not leave. Early in the book, Klein states that they were free men and could do so, were they able to produce a good enough reason. But the fact is that they were effectively prisoners, and at several points Klein describes incidents in which they “escaped” and were forcibly brought back. Klein expresses no great surprise at this. Moreover his attitude to the men was completely paternalistic. He describes the induction process at the camp as the “sausage machine”, in which a man has his hair cut, is washed and is taught to drill:

...a process which turns an ordinary uninviting workaday coolie into a clean, well-clothed and smartly active human being. An astonishing process which is doing a great good for a corner of China. If the whole nation, male and female, could pass through the Sausage Machine it would make the people anew, as it is making them, two to three hundred a day, in this camp.

When a man tries unsuccessfully to escape, Klein is simply puzzled:

Questioned why, at a court of inquiry held this morning, he was desirous of so impolitely leaving his comrades, a dry warm wooden bed, no end of rice, and the interesting prospect of seeing France at war, he said that he wanted to give up all for his wife and follow her.

St Omer, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt Thomas Keith Aitken)
In Klein's view the men are not much troubled about their destination provided they are not going into combat. It does not occur to him that they should worry about this point. He describes how a mutiny broke out at sea in one of the first drafts because an “absurd rumour” had spread that they were going into a “death trap”. But as stated above, some 3,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps and its French equivalent would indeed die in France. As Klein's book was published in 1919, he should by then have known that, and his insouciance seems inexcusable. Moreover he makes light of the danger from the journey itself.  Thus in January 1918 there is a mass break-out from the camp:  “A malicious report has lately gained credence among them that the last two transports were either torpedoed, or captured by the Germans; a story, needless to say, entirely baseless.”  But it wasn’t. In February 1917 the French troopship Athos, carrying Chinese labourers to France, had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean. “The incident resulted in the loss of 754 lives,” says Mark O’Neill, “including 543 Chinese men who were destined to never set foot on European soil, and who would be the first Chinese casualties of the Great War.” In the Atlantic, 1917 had been the worst year for submarine warfare, and later in his own book Klein will describe disciplining labourers who light cigarettes on deck, lest they attract submarines. Klein’s paternalism had blinded him to the fact that these men were not imagining things; that their concerns were, in fact, real.

And yet Klein clearly liked “his” Chinese. The book is peppered with references to their strength and to their solidity of character, and he was especially impressed by their kindness to each other:

They showed the sort of spirit which makes one positively love the Chinese—the Chinese of Shantung at any rate. They are wonderfully good to one another in adversity. They have warm hearts and willing hands. There was something so eternally and touchingly human about this business that whatever vestige remained in me of the conventional conception of the coolie quite disappeared.

Klein's narrative takes us across the Pacific to British Columbia, where the labourers were kept in camps until transport was available to take them onwards. Although Klein does not say so, the camps were secret – initially to protect Chinese neutrality (though by now China was in the war) but also so as not to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada. The men were then usually taken across the country in sealed trains and embarked for France in, one assumes, Montreal or Halifax. Klein's draft, however, were unusual, being taken instead on the Empress of Asia, through the Panama Canal and on to France via New York. It is, Klein tells us, a constant battle to make the men understand the danger from submarines. (Oddly, the ship would survive the First World War but be sunk in the second.)

Embarcation at Shandong, from With the Chinks; pic possibly by Klein himself
The journey through the Canal and the Caribbean gives Klein further occasion to shock the modern reader, with descriptions of n*****s and c**ns. (“Coolie” and “chink” I can manage, but only given the context; and I cannot bring myself to type those.) The narrative ends in New York, a fact that disappointed the reviewer for Punch when it was published the following year. The review also criticised the book for failing to show why the men had joined up, but conceded that: “For the conscientious historian it will have a certain unique value. And in fairness it must be added that in the latter half there are touches of humour and humanity which make the reading easy and pleasant.” This was not entirely wrong. Klein was clearly not a bad man and for all his youthful paternalism, his regard for the Chinese was real. Yet there is little evidence of him talking to, or trying to understand, them, or to see them as individuals.

Or is there? Some way through the book Klein introduces his friend Julius East, or Jule, who has, he says, given up a good career in banking to join the CLC. On the three-week voyage across the Pacific it occurs to East to find out more about his charges: “The second day out in the Pacific it came to Jule that it would be interesting to know what was passing in the minds of his coolies. So, picking out the most intelligent of the interpreters, he descended to the 'tween decks and closeted himself with his two sergeants.” The ensuing conversation is described in some detail. Jule appears to have learned little of the two men’s thoughts and interrogates a third, a “six-foot-two, magnificently built, open-mouthed hayseed, one Lun Zun Chong ...Jule asked many straight questions, but never a satisfactory answer did he receive.”  Klein concludes that “the moral to be drawn from Jule's interview with three members of his company is that nothing passes in the mind of a coolie ...Nothing, that is, of a philosophic nature.” Jule is disappointed. “He expected whimsical points of view, quaint definitions, intellectual oddities.” He still maintains that he can uncover them, but not through an interpreter, and decides he will learn Chinese.

We don’t learn whether he does, but we do encounter Jule again, and hear of his thoughts and actions in surprising detail. Finally, in New York, he has dinner with his sister – who lives there – and her friends. The coolies, he assures them, will not be allowed to fight in France even if they want to (and as we have seen, they didn’t). But Jule makes the following observation:

At all events, if they don't get a Tommy's chance in this war, they will get it sooner or later in their own country. It will be a war of their own—a civil war ...clean, clear open minds against the dirt and truck and turgidness of centuries. When these men go back to China they won't be satisfied with the old life, the constricted and congested village life; they will want an existence more akin to our Western ideas and ideals of life; they will want more order, more open spaces, more cleanliness ... In a word they will be progressive.

Sword display, Crecy Forest, 1918 (Imperial War Museum/2nd Lt David McLellan)
Was that Jule’s opinion? Or was he an imaginary cypher for Klein himself?  I think the latter. A search of the website of Britain’s National Archives turned up his full name, and his middle names were Julius Ernest. Julius East? It may be that Klein wrote the racist hogwash he thought was expected of him, but used the Jule device to express his genuine interest in the Chinese themselves – an interest that might then have been seen as a little odd and even unsettling in some circles, including those in which Klein would return to work as a civilian. It may be that the book does reflect Klein’s own attitudes. But it could also be that this whole book is subversive.

Of the man himself, I can find out very little. He was a British officer, but his name sounds more American – and as we have seen, if he was Jule, his sister lived in New York. He could also have been Canadian or Australian; many Empire subjects would have been thought of as British then. The fact that the National Archives had his full name meant I could establish from other sources that he served from 1914 to 1920, and was gazetted temporary 2nd Lieutenant with effect from December 31 1917. I also found reference to an American with a Russian-born father and English-born mother who may have been our Klein; if that is our man, he was probably born in 1895. The answers will be buried in the War Office files, for those with the time and skills to find them.

Whatever Klein really thought, I found parts of his book hard to read, and if I were Chinese I would have been climbing the walls somewhere around page three or four. Behind the paternalism was the historical suffering of indentured labourers alluded to earlier, and while the CLC men did not suffer as badly as that, their conditions in France were hard.  Neither was this the case only for those employed by the British. Mark O’Neill states that those employed by the French fared better, but his own account does not always seem to bear this out:

Several Chinese workers died in the French factories, due to accidents, disputes and illnesses that were not properly treated. Between 1916 and 1918, the men were involved in twenty-five strikes or violent demonstrations. There were arguments among themselves, usually related to gambling, and clashes with other foreign workers. In January 1917, in a gunpowder factory in Bassens, a brawl with Arab workers left two Chinese dead. A few days later, at a gunpowder factory in Bergerac, 500 Chinese attacked 250 Algerians; one Chinese was killed and sixty people were injured.

Meanwhile the British organize a well-equipped hospital in the base area that has 1,500 beds and Chinese-speaking doctors and dressers, and the workers receive the same care and attention as the British soldiers. “To give a flavour of home, each ward had a canary and a model pagoda several metres high stood near the main entrance, with a gong that struck the hours of the day.”

On the other hand, O’Neill also reports that the British-built hospital had “a large compound for the treatment of those who had lost their mind under the stress of war.” He also records that quite a number of workers died in bombing raids on their camps and elsewhere.  Moreover O’Neill does recount incidents in which British officers mistreated Chinese workers, saying that when workers presented a complaint and their officer could not understand them, it was not unknown for them to simply open fire: “A lieutenant in charge of 1,000 men was reported as hitting the workers on the face, kicking them and calling them names," he writes. “In turn, they cursed him and finally a strike occurred. The guards opened fire and four workers were killed.” Neither was this the worst incident; in October 1917, five men were killed and 14 wounded after a dispute over discipline, while two months later there was a mutiny because of bullying by British NCOs. This resulted in the deaths of four Chinese workers and a Canadian soldier.

Gravestone, Noyelles, 1919 (Imperial War Museum/Ivan L. Bawtree)
Reading With the Chinks, it is not hard to see how this happened. Klein, though of his time, was clearly decent enough but his fellow-officers seem to have been a rum lot. One, for example, is a Russian officer in a crack cavalry regiment (or so Klein assures us) who has been stranded by the Revolution and has left all his baggage “in the Carpathians”. He misses the sophisticated company he had when he served in the London and Washington embassies before the war, and finds his brother-officers a poor substitute. The other officers seem to have been a mixed bag of missionaries and other China hands. One advocates converting all the labourers to his muscular brand of Christianity. This idea is wisely quashed by the others, but most are not above a little casual violence: “There is rivalry among the officers in regard to the number of canes broken on the backs, legs and shins, not to speak of the heads of defaulters,” reports Klein. “The supply of canes ran short in Tsingtau some time ago.” He quotes a brother-officer as saying that “nothing... knocks anything into a coolie so well as a nose-bleed.” The officer concerned is, says Klein, “well practised at drawing a coolie's blood at first slap,” and assures everyone that "they soon get over it and bear you no malice, either.”

Klein recalls an officer called Harris, who has an excellent digestion and the temperament of a lamb,” admitting that he was “growing astonishingly callous in his treatment of the coolies.”  He tells Klein and the others that “’the smallest breach of discipline drives me into a fury ... I don't know what has come over me. Time was ...I could initiate a coolie into the knowledge of left and right without loss of temper. To-day I cane him into this knowledge ...’ In Harris' heart is a great fear of becoming like a Prussian officer.  ‘What if I should become like that which we are seeking to destroy?’”  

Herein lies what for me is the key takeaway of With the Chinks: that the power of one group over another is as bad for the first as it is for the second. As the distinguished playwright and MP Benn Levy said in a 1946 Commons debate on the occupation of Germany (which was not going well): “It is not good for a nation to be conquered. But it is also not good for people to be conquerors.” I may remember Daryl Klein the next time I hear someone praising the achievements of colonialism.

For further reading on the Chinese Labour Corps, Mark O’Neill quotes Brian Fawcett’s Chinese Labour Corps in France 1917–1921 and Xu Guoqi’s Strangers on the Western Front. The Imperial War Museum’s  excellent collection of photographs of the CLC can be found here.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Great War in modern voice

The First World War produced a blizzard of books. Many are still read. Yet one of the best has been largely forgotten. Written with a modern voice nearly 60 years after the war ended, Eric Hiscock’s The Bells of Hell has a life and freshness that you won’t find in the classic memoirs

Ypres, September 1918 (Imperial War Museum/Harry Guy Bartholomew)
The British literature of the First World War has an identity of its own as a body of work – something that from the second war lacks. It’s no mystery why. Most of those who fought for Britain did so on the Western Front; this gives the war literature a certain cohesion, as does the fact that many of the authors were from highly literate and privileged backgrounds, or were men of letters, or both. Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Frederic Manning, Richard Aldington and Ford Madox Ford all fit into these categories. Posh non-literary figures also got in on the act (Anthony Eden, for example, whose Another World is rather good). It’s a world well depicted in historian Josh Levithan’s  splendid A Century Back blog, which is currently tracking the war day by day through their letters; it shows us how incestuous this world of pen and sword actually was. Yet not all of this cohesive body of work speaks to us directly now; sometimes the language can seem archaic and mannered. J.B. Priestley’s fragment Carry on! Carry On!, in his autobiographical Margin Released, is an exception (it was written much later). But much Great War writing, superb though it is, seems increasingly of its time.

Eric Hiscock’s The Bells of Hell Go Ting-A-Ling-Ling, by contrast, has sunk without trace. But because it was written nearly 60 years after the events it describes, its language has a freshness that is much easier for the modern reader than (say) Blunden, who is a wonderful writer but can feel very old-fashioned. To read Hiscock, by contrast, is like hearing about the war from a gifted raconteur in the pub. The gap in years means he can also look at the war with modern eyes, and be quite brutally frank.

Hiscock was born in 1900 and brought up in Oxford. His parents had met when both in service to an aristocrat, Lord Lane-Fox, and his father had later become a “scout” – domestic staff – in one of the Oxford colleges. Hiscock’s home was not a wealthy one, but seems to have been secure and cheerful.

As the book begins, however, Hiscock joins the army – at the age of just 15. The army clearly knows he is underage, and he spends the next two years in Britain. (In this he is luckier than an old teacher of mine who had been sent to the Somme at 15, and who started crying when I asked him about it over 50 years later.)  The young Hiscock is shipped off to Edinburgh, where he makes the acquaintance of one Sergeant-Major Priestman. The latter is a regular who “had had a testicle shot off in the Mons retreat”, and who “bullied from Reveille at six in the morning Lights Out at night, spitting venom. But at week’s-end, he was not averse to accepting hard cash for a forty-eight hour pass.” It reminds one of the famous wartime song (which Hiscock quotes):

When the bloody war is over,
O how happy I shall be...
No more crying out for furlough,
No more bribing for a pass,
You can tell the Sergeant-Major
To stick his passes up his arse.

In other words, never mind the mud and the lice of Flanders; you were bullied on a massive scale long before you got there. That’s something you won’t find so much in Edmund Blunden or Robert Graves (though Frederick Manning, who spent time in the ranks, hints at it more).

Hiscock does get to the front, in early 1918 when he is still some months underage. As he and his companions file into the trench for the first time, a sniper kills the sergeant (not Priestman) a few feet from him. “Possibly somebody did something about him as his lifeless body fell to the sodden duckboards ...but I think we just left him there. As [we] scrambled into the shelter my steel helmet caught a protuberance in the muddied roof. It was the knee of a khaki-clad corpse.” There is plenty more like this. One of the most evocative passages in the book, for me, is Hiscock’s description of repeated night journeys up to the trenches, on duckboards across the mud; it is a treacherous passage and it is not unusual for an overladen man to simply lose his footing and fall into the mud or a flooded crater below, never to be seen again.

Yet some at least of this can be found in many books (though perhaps not quite so vividly). What marks this book out, besides its contemporary feel, is its frankness. Hiscock doesn’t bother with the King and Country nonsense. Instead we hear how months of bully-beef wrecks his digestion so that he will be seriously ill in later years. We hear how he gets his penis bitten by a vengeful French girl after he decides, as the last minute, not to have intercourse with her (she was, “it turned out, a diseased nymphomaniac”). It’s played for laughs but then he quietly tells us, at the end of that passage, how a fellow-soldier later catches a dose at the end of the war and shoots himself rather than go home to his family.

But perhaps the most extraordinary part of this book is Hiscock’s own court-martial for cowardice.  As he recounts it, he injures himself accidentally while cleaning his rifle, and has been accused of doing it deliberately to get himself repatriated. The accuser, a Lieutenant Clarke, is (according to Hiscock) a homosexual jealous of Hiscock’s friendship with another man. It is impossible to know if this account is correct; one could, I suppose, find the transcripts of the court-martial if they exist, but they might not settle the case. For what it is worth, Hiscock returns to combat – incredibly, he is returned to the same unit, which must be dangerous for Clarke – and serves until his discharge in 1919. This does not suggest cowardice. Yet a quite startling number of men were convicted; most were not actually shot, but over 300 were, and Hiscock would have been well aware he was on trial for his life. If one does take Hiscock’s account at face value, it demonstrates that this war put ordinary men at the mercy not just of the enemy, but of the very worst of their own people.

Hiscock survives the war and goes on to take part in the postwar occupation of Germany – itself fascinating, as there are few enough accounts of the post-WWII occupation, let alone of this one. The book ends back in Oxford as he picks up the thread of his life. In these last parts he describes friendships with two intellectual homosexuals in some detail. In the book he also talks about feelings of love for other soldiers. Hiscock does not appear to be especially prejudiced against homosexuality, and his attitudes seem fairly liberal for 1976, let alone 1918. I have heard it suggested that Hiscock himself had repressed feelings for men, not uncommon at that time. But I do not see why his sensitivity towards others’ sexuality should be ascribed to that. It may be that, having spent much time at close quarters with other men in his youth, he was forced acknowledge the existence of diverse sexuality; after all, he was also (if the Clarke story is true) nearly killed by its consequences.

There is much that in The Bells of Hell that is grim but in the end, oddly, the book itself isn’t. Hiscock writes warmly of his parents, of his life in Oxford and of (for example) fishing for Sunday breakfast with his father at Godstow. He seems to have been aware of his luck in surviving the war. The book is also peppered with character sketches, often wry and funny (I loved the forger and general spiv, Vanner). And the various fumbling sexual adventures show a keen sense of the ridiculous.

The Menin Road, by war artist Paul Nash (Imperial War Museum)
I first read this book in 1991 and never forgot it, to the extent that I decided to track it down 25 years later. I found it as startling and vivid as I did before, and wondered why it has not had the impact of other books about the first war. Hiscock went on to a successful career in advertising and Fleet Street, and married Romilly Cavan, a novelist and playwright who also wrote some early TV scripts. The Bells of Hell was published by Desmond Elliott’s Arlington Books, a small company but a distinguished one. It did also get a brief release as a paperback. But its impact seems to have been small. Hiscock was not of the officer class that still dominated publishing and criticism in the 1970s, and it may be you still had to be an Oxbridge poet, or at least of the slaughtering classes, before you were really allowed to write about the Great War.

If so, that is our loss, because there are things that those classes would not have questioned, or seen in quite the same way. Wars are not just about what a country does to its enemies; they are about what it does to its own people in the process, and the way in which men like Clarke, or people of a certain class, can suddenly wield huge authority over those of another. That is something we could perhaps remember in our own times, when some would have us believe that it’s only foreigners who are our enemies.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

Sunday, 11 December 2016

We, the people

In 2016, populism has changed the political map of the western world – and there’s plenty more to come in 2017. But what is populism? Does it have shared roots with fascism? And who are “the people”? Two books – one new, one old – have something to tell us

The year 2016 has seen the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK, post-coup consolidation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and the near-election of Norbert Hofer in Austria. The year that follows will see bids for power by Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. These people are widely dismissed as “populists”. But what does that even mean?

In his short new book What is Populism?,  Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princetown University, suggests we don’t have an answer to that question. He then supplies one. A populist, he states, is someone who claims to identify with “the people”.  S/he rejects everyone else.  How “the people” are defined is left conveniently vague, but it is made clear that everyone not fitting that description is an outlier, a deviant, or, worse of all, part of an unresponsive “elite” against which s/he is leading a popular rebellion. Thus their views need not be taken into account. The populist, says Müller, is therefore inherently anti-pluralist – they cannot be a democrat. Yet they can present themselves as exactly that, through their claim to represent the popular base. 

The first part of this definition – identification with something called “the people” – is not new, but Müller presumably wouldn’t claim it was. What may break new ground is his suggestion that this identification makes the populist inherently anti-pluralist, because any definition of “the people” must exclude stakeholders in the polity that don’t meet it. Given the diversity of modern
societies, it’s fair to guess that a big percentage of the people won’t be “the people”. A quick glance at Trump and Britain’s Brexit advocate Nigel Farage bears this out. Trump actually didn’t win the popular vote in 2016, even though he won the electoral college; so his definition of “the people” may be missing a few “people”. As for Farage, the Brexit referendum was won 52-48%. Yet both men insist that “the people” have spoken.  (After the November election, we were treated to the sight of these men celebrating their victory over “the elites” in a gold-plated lift at Trump Tower.)

Should we worry about populists? After all, a leader whose politics make no sense will be called out in the end. The trouble is that they can do a lot of damage first. One reason is that, as Müller says, the populists can present themselves as democrats, although to him they are inherently not. “The danger is ...that [populism] promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (Let the people rule!). ...That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocractic should trouble us all.” He supports this last point with a discussion of the way populist governments of the left and right have behaved in Hungary, Venezuela and Poland. 

Müller has less to say about the way we must react to populism. He does talk about the safeguards that have been built into European constitutions since the war, but says little about the ways in which democracy has been defined, and then protected from populist capture. He could for example have raised the “tyranny of the majority” arguments set out by the Founding Fathers and by John Stuart Mill, and make the case for representative government. Müller has written widely about politics and government elsewhere, and it may be that he wished this book to be concise, with a precise focus; it explains and defines populism, and that is all it sought to do. But I believe that, having explained why populists can’t be pluralists, he could also have set out the ways one preserves pluralism.

What Müller does do, is to demand that we confront, but also engage with, populism. “I reject the paternalistic liberal attitude [of] therapy for citizens ‘whose fears and anger have to be taken seriously’,” he says. But he also rejects exclusion of populists from debate, pointing out that this will simply support their contention that the “popular will” is excluded from the “system”. I think he is right on both counts.

I would prefer to have read more in this book about the constitutional pluralist structures that can protect us from populism.  I would also have liked to see more analysis of why voters respond to populist leaders who clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. But perhaps these discussions would have blunted this concise, readable little book. Müller’s main purpose was simply to define populism – and he has certainly done that.  Moreover his definition of populism as inherently anti-pluralist is a well-argued and elegant warning. As Trump apparently said in May 2016, “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.”  If you’re not sure you’re one of Trump’s “the people” (or Farage’s, or Wilders’s, or Erdoğan’s), the populist vision of democracy does not include you.


But what if you feel that vision does include you – and it is the first time that anything has? Populism is, by definition, about identity politics – a point Müller acknowledges. In a time of growing social alienation, to be offered an identity, a place in a group, even a mass-identity, can be persuasive. If Peter Fritzsche is right, we may have been here before.

Fritzsche is Professor of History at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published widely on European and especially German history. In 1998 published a book Germans into Nazis. This took a fresh look at why the Germans ushered Hitler into power in 1933. His thought-provoking book attempts to answer the question by casting aside the conventional explanations – Versailles, the Depression, reparations – and looking at the dynamics of division in a society and the desire for unity.  These explanations seem especially topical and urgent now, given current trends in Western politics.

Fritzsche’s thesis is that the First World War was crucial to the rise of Nazism, but not in the way that has been assumed. Conventional explanations have focused on the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, territorial losses and reparations. According to Fritzsche, many postwar parties opposed these; the Nazis were nothing new in this respect. If we want to understand the real role of WW1 in the rise of Nazism, we should start not in 1918 but in 1914, and look at the way it made the Germans feel one people, even though they had been that in theory for over 40 years. Facing attack from outside in 1914, Germans coalesced into what “the Kaiser called the Burgenfrieden, the “peace of the fortress”, [which] promised to resolve the divisions between workers and the middle classes, between socialists and conservatives, [and] between Protestants and Catholics.”

This was important in a divided country. Fritzsche points out that (for example) Prussian voters were divided into property classes, the highest of which were allocated votes of greater value. The popular mobilization brought people together for the first time in a sense of common purpose and resulted in an unprecedented level of civic engagement – the Volksgemeinschaft, the community working as one. A side-effect was that it meant the stratified society of imperial Germany was no longer viable. But it was not satisfactorily replaced.

The new civic engagement never went away. But in the 1920s it was expressed through a series of interest groups, and parties linked to different professional or trade bodies. It was not a substitute. When the Nazis arrived, however, people did feel a sense of common purpose. The way the Nazis did this was, for Fritzsche, far more important than Versailles or reparations, which were already the subject of political discourse. As to anti-semitism, he does not deny its existence in pre-1933 Germany, but does not see the Nazis as having any ownership of it then – all parties were somewhat anti-semitic – or find any evidence that most Germans supported anything like a “final solution”. It is the Volksgemeinschaft that is important here.

Is Fritzsche right? Perhaps only Germans can answer this, but I feel he is onto something, if only because he provides an explanation for Nazism that does not rely on Germans being a weird, separate species. After all, no human is. I know plenty of Germans. They do not have two heads. A reviewer of this book in the Jerusalem Post commented that “Historians examining nations over periods of time have somehow to find a balance between what is inherent in a people and what is not, in order to attempt explanations of national attitudes and conduct.” But can you, in fact, have such a balance – is there anything “inherent in a people”? It is an important point, as ascribing Nazism to the German character has induced a dangerous conviction in other countries that they would never behave as the Germans did. Could any historical phenomenon be repeated by any country, given the right circumstances?

Trump Tower: People's HQ? (Achim Hepp)
Fritzsche doesn’t answer that question, and he doesn’t speculate on the broader implications of his theory. He leaves that to the reader, which is perhaps what a good historian should do. But one notes that many people in Western countries seem to feel that their sense of identity is threatened, and do not feel that any entity represents them collectively. Neither, it seems, do many Americans. In fact they seem to feel that there is no single national life, no conversation, that includes them, and few fora for civic engagement. Neither left nor right answers these concerns. In this situation, many will turn to those who claim to speak for them and against “the establishment”, and who promise to return their sense of belonging. These trends at least partly underlie the Brexit vote in Britain, the meteoric rise of Trump in the US and the growth of populist right-wing movements in Europe. If Fritzsche’s thesis is correct, could the German pattern be replicated elsewhere?

Fritzsche quotes Hitler’s dictum that the nationalists forgot the social and the socialists forgot the national. Hitler forgot neither. Given people’s feelings of powerlessness against business, globalization and a perceived loss of identity, this is an important point.

If someone says to you, “I represent you. You, the people,” you have come home. You have an identity, and have no need to share it with those with whom you do not identify, whether they be Jews, Poles, Gypsies, perceived welfare scroungers, Goths or gays. They are not “the people”. But you are. As Jan-Werner Müller explains in What is Populism?, this is the nature of the beast.  Meanwhile Peter Fritzsche’s Germans into Nazis invests the Nazi phenomenon with a universality that makes this book crucial in this time when, once again, it is the strident and divisive who claim to know who “the people” really are.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)